A day in the life of Joe T. Garcia's

A summer breeze sweeps across the patio at Joe T. Garcia’s, and water splashes into the sun-kissed pool where generations of this proud family came of age. Tranquility and tradition are the main draws here, but it’s a well-oiled kitchen operation, perfected over eight decades, that keeps the Mexican dishes and margaritas flowing at Fort Worth’s busiest and best-known restaurant. Rarely has an 18-hour workday been made to look so easy.

By Robert Philpot and Rick Press; Photos and video by Steve Wilson and Jared Christopher

5 a.m.

The gardeners arrive before sunrise

Once the family back yard, the patio began expanding in the 1970s, and the lush landscaping totally transformed the restaurant. A small crew of five works quickly, watering plants, hosing down concrete and checking for dead flowers.

914
Number of flowerpots in the gardens
38
Palm trees
112
Other trees
5
Fountains

JOE T.'S FROM ABOVE

5:32 a.m.

Lanny Lancarte says “hello” to his grandmother

The oldest of six siblings, Lanny is the restaurant’s president, CEO and ringleader behind the scenes. Vibrant at age 67, he is a walking (sometimes running) encyclopedia of Joe T.’s history. “When I get here early in the morning, I see my grandmother. She was always the first one here, with her watering hose and broom. So when I go around watering the plants, and working in the garden, I’m saying hello to my grandmother.”

25,000-plus
Steps Lanny Lancarte takes in a full day at work

6:19 a.m.

A whole lotta laundry and dishes

Cleanup crews are busy in the kitchen, and others are checking on inventory. Last night at 10:30, the industrial-sized dishwasher, which is reminiscent of a drive-through car wash, broke down. But by this morning, it’s fixed, and there isn’t a dirty dish in sight.

18
dishwashers

6:20 a.m.

75 degrees and climbing

Our visit takes place during one of the slower times of the year for Joe T.’s — the end of June and the beginning of July. When we arrive, it’s 75 degrees; it will reach 97 by late afternoon. But even during hot days, there will be a stream of customers on the tree-shaded patio.

THE MOURNING DOVES

We walk by a cage of doves just outside the Joe T.’s offices. Lanny says he finds their cooing soothing. “Roosters didn’t work, so I said, ‘OK, let’s try something else.’ ” Even though it’s in an employees-only area, the dove cage is a magnet for kids who love to explore the sprawling grounds.

14
Number of doves

6:28 a.m.

Joe Lancarte arrives to sweat “the small stuff”

Officially the treasurer, Joe says: “I do the small stuff. Turning on the A/Cs. Checking the inventory to see what we have for the day. Checking the party list to see how many large groups are coming in today.” Large parties are tracked via color-coded index cards on a bulletin board in a no-longer-used second-floor dining room. The last person who had a private party in the room was Charlton Heston, who died in 2008.

40
Ceiling fans
8
Portacool machines

8 a.m.

Someone’s in the kitchen at Joe T.’s

Eddie Walton has been a cook (among other things) at Joe T.’s since 1968. He says Mrs. Joe T. and Hope Lancarte taught him their recipes. Over the years he has served such celebrities as Tina Turner and Michael Jackson.

3
Kitchens

8:27 a.m.

The family breakfast

Lanny and his wife of 46 years, Jody Lancarte, take a breakfast break at Righteous Foods, the health-conscious West Seventh Street restaurant run by their son, Lanny Lancarte II. The elder Lanny says he likes to start the day with a healthy breakfast before being surrounded by enchiladas all day.

A FAMILY HISTORY

Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Dishes is quite literally a mom-and-pop operation, handed down from generation to generation of the Garcia and Lancarte families. Here is a brief history.

View the slideshow below.

MEET THE LANCARTE FAMILY

Hope Lancarte (seated)

Joe T. and Jessie “Mama Sus” Garcia’s daughter, Esperanza (better-known as Hope), married Paul Lancarte in 1948 and had seven children, all of whom became involved in the family business. They are all co-owners; here is a breakdown of their titles and what they do.

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Lanny Lancarte

President and CEO of Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Dishes

We like to think of him as the showrunner. Lanny is usually at Joe T.’s before sunrise, overseeing work on the patio gardens that he has been developing since 1970, constantly on the move throughout the day as he supervises other operations.

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Zurella Lancarte

Vice president

Runs the indoor dining room during lunch and dinner hours, among many other duties.

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Joe Lancarte

Treasurer

Like Lanny, Joe is there first thing in the morning, and says he takes care of the “small stuff,” which ranges from turning on the air-conditioners in the dining rooms to checking inventory to running down the large-party list for the day.

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Jesse Lancarte

Vice president

Runs Esperanza’s Bakery (named for Hope Lancarte) on North Main Street near Joe T.’s, as well as the Esperanza’s on Park Place in Fort Worth.

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Phillip Lancarte

Secretary

Runs both locations of Esperanza’s along with Jesse. They also run a catering division.

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Liz Lancarte

Vice president

The youngest Lancarte sibling, Liz runs the restaurant during the evening hours, taking care of hospitality and, as she put it, “a little bit of everything.” She was the one who locked up after our visit.

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Jody Lancarte

Director of special events and catering

Lanny’s wife since 1970, but treated more as sister than sister-in-law by the Lancarte siblings. Jody runs a phone staff that takes large-party reservations (up to 18 months in advance) and has plenty of stories to tell, from the families who’ve had four generations of celebrations at Joe T.’s to the rock stars that got in trouble for throwing furniture into the pool.

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David Lancarte

(deceased)

David also worked with Lanny on developing the patio, and for four years ran a Dallas location of Joe T. Garcia’s. David also created the Food Division, which distributes the restaurant’s salsas and barbecue sauce, developed from his grandmother and grandfather’s recipes. David died Aug. 12, 2005, at age 53.

9:12 a.m.

Table set up begins on the patio (86 degrees)

About 1,250 — 750
Outdoor seating
Between 700 and 800
Largest parties accommodated
350-plus
Tables
37
Umbrellas

9:24 a.m.

The phones are lighting up

Jody Lancarte is taking reservations for large parties and adding more color-coded index cards to the bulletin board. Reservations are taken up to 18 months in advance. The restaurant averages five wedding rehearsals on Fridays, two receptions on Saturdays, plus receptions and rehearsals during the week — everything from first-birthday parties to retirement parties, Jody says.

“We had one little girl that had her graduation from high school here. Then she had her graduation from college here. When she got married, she had her rehearsal dinner here. And when she got divorced, she had the party here.’”
Jody Lancarte

STAR-STRUCK

Waitress Darlene Bennett's celebrity encounters

10:13 a.m.

Prepping the tables

As we return to the patio, servers are putting down tablecloths. The restaurant will open for lunch at 11.

10:24 a.m.

Things get cooking in the kitchen

Insiders know that if they want two enchiladas, they should order a small. Want three? Ask for a large.

THE FOOD: WHAT'S FOR LUNCH?

1. Tamales 2. Cheese nachos 3. Chicken tortilla soup 4. Cheese enchiladas rice, beans, 5. Beef tacos 6. Chicken flautas 7. Beef fajitas 8. Chile rellenos

11 a.m.

Open for lunch, time to make the tortillas

11:43 a.m.

The road warriors

Judy and Sonny Cunningham are from the small town of Van. “We come 110 miles (each way) just to eat lunch,” says Sonny, who first came to Joe T.’s in the late ’60s when he lived in the DFW area. “We love everything about the place. The food, that atmosphere.” Judy says, “It’s our favorite.”

12:19 p.m.

The lady who has been lunching here for eight decades

“There are so many memories,” says Jo Ann Walker, 88, who has been coming to Joe T.’s since she was 8. “Five generations of my family still come, regularly. ... Hope Lancarte [Lanny’s mother, who died in 2014], she was my dear friend. Her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, too many to count. “I get very emotional, because they’ve done so much for the city of Fort Worth,” Walker continues, choking up a bit. “I love the Lancartes and Garcias with all my heart.”

THE CASH ONLY RULE

A holdover from the days of Joe T. himself, Lanny says a day doesn’t go by without someone suggesting the restaurant start taking credit cards. He smiles, ever stubborn, and says: “I have banker friends who tell me all the time, I should start taking credit cards, but then they say, ‘If you’ve got a line down the street, maybe you don’t.’ ” Cashier Kate Norman, Lanny’s niece and the stepdaughter of Jesse Lancarte, says, “Quite a few (customers) come in and see the sign and say, ‘Oh, my goodness — you don’t take credit cards?’ ... I’ll tell them that we take cash and checks, and we have an ATM. I think if we didn’t have an ATM, they’d have a lot more trouble.”

1:10 p.m.

Sweet treats and salsa

The front room of Joe T.’s, the original restaurant, is a place few patio-goers ever see, unless they come in to buy some sweet treats from the bakery case or a jar of salsa. The family owns Esperanza’s, a few blocks away on North Main Street, a Mexican bakery that also serves an expanded menu of Mexican dishes. Jesse and Phillip Lancarte run Esperanza’s, named for Hope Lancarte, as well the company’s catering division. David Lancarte, who died of cancer in 2005, created the Food Division, which now distributes the restaurant’s salsas in more than 1,000 stores, including Wal-Mart. David also helped Lanny develop the patio and for four years ran a Dallas location of Joe T. Garcia’s.

2:30 p.m.

Breaks between lunch and dinner

LANNY'S LANDMARKS

A stone rooster by the pool signifies where the chicken coop used to be in the family’s yard.

A live oak tree near the entrance to the patio was the kids’ favorite, so they built the patio bar around it.

Street sign tiles pay homage to family members who have died: Calle de Mama Suz (misspelled Mama Zus), Calle de David, Calle Esperanza, etc.

The green neon sign out front is the original, Lanny says, though it’s been painted a few times.

The original window where Mama Suz would serve up the enchiladas after she rolled them is still there, though taped shut so it doesn’t break.

The original Garland stove is still in the kitchen and it still works! “We still use it,” Lanny says.

2:55 p.m.

Dining poolside

A few lunchtime customers linger by the pool, even though the restaurant closed at 2:30.

4:25 p.m.

Time to punch in

After showing us the old church across the street he remodeled and now uses for private parties, Lanny walks briskly to the front room at Joe T.’s to welcome the afternoon shift, punching each one in with a friendly “knuckles” greeting or pat on the back. They then scan their hands in a device that clocks them in. (Not everything here is old-school.)

400
job applicants a year for 15 available server spots
30 seconds
Average time of job interviews, according to Lanny. “I just look for a personality that reflects the restaurant.”

4:55 p.m.

Arrive early, stay late

The restaurant isn’t technically open yet, but customers are arriving so hostess Janet Vasquez seats them. She’s been working at Joe T.’s almost a year, and says it’s a workout. “You get the experience of working a whole block, which is really fun,” she says, referring to the long lines that form for the patio, especially on weekends. “You just have to be sweet,” Vasquez says of dealing with customers who don’t want to wait. “People are not wanting to stand up, or they get really mad because they’re waiting a long time for a table. ... But we try our best. All you need is a pitcher of margaritas, and it’s fine.”

12
Hostesses working this evening
95 degrees
at 5 p.m.

5:27 p.m.

The hot waiter

Italo Martins, an IT expert from Brazil, works the primo patio section near the pool.

5:59 p.m.

The yoga instructor and Bill Murray

Ryann Showmaker’s first love is teaching yoga, but working at Joe T.’s is a close second. And when it comes to income? “Oh — Joe T.’s.,” she says, but yoga does make it easier to balance those heavy trays across the patio. Showmaker says a lot of Joe T.’s workers have two jobs. “There are real-estate agents, yoga teachers. Some people play baseball. So everyone has their different thing that they bring to Joe T.’s.” A few weeks before our visit she waited on actor Bill Murray, who was in town to play in the Dean & DeLuca Invitational pro-am. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a big deal about it, but he was like, ‘Hi. I’m Bill.’ And I was like, ‘I know who you are.’ ... He was super-sweet.”

$50,000-$70,000
potential annual salary for a Joe T.’s server, according to Lanny

FOLLOW THE FAJITAS

6:14 p.m.

The night shift takes over

Liz Lancarte, the youngest of Lanny Lancarte’s siblings, who arrived about an hour earlier, works the night shift. Her role, she says, is a little bit of everything. “Talking to people, making sure people are getting seated, [overseeing] the kitchen closing up,” she says. “The people love to see a family member going up to the customers and seeing how they’re doing. They love that.”

6:43 p.m.

Time for a traditional Mexican serenade

7:06 p.m.

The line is forming

By 7:15, the line to get in wraps around the railings outside the entrance to Joe T.’s patio, but it’s nothing as long as you’ll see on weekends. Still, hostesses tell us the people at the end of this line have a 30- to 35-minute wait. That’s where we find Courtney Hawkins, who worked at the restaurant for five years as a hostess and server. She’s here tonight for a family celebration, and she’s not worried about the wait. “The food comes out really fast. ... It’s all about the atmosphere — and the margaritas.”

LEGEND OF THE LINE

7:18 p.m.

The first-timers

Pete and Sarah Seltz, who are moving to Fort Worth from Des Moines, Iowa, are enjoying their inaugural visit to Joe T.’s. on a house-hunting trip. “There’s nothing like this in Des Moines,” Pete says of the scene on the patio. “Not even close.”

8:05 p.m.

Who’s in those Suburbans?

A trio of black Suburbans is drawing some attention out front, but nobody knows of any celebrities in the house tonight. We later learn that former TCU star linebacker and 2011 Rose Bowl Defensive MVP Tank Carder came in with some friends. Carder now plays for the Cleveland Browns.

8:43 p.m.

Can we see your IDs, please?

Joe T.’s is famous for its potent margaritas, but a table of 18 TCU students is apparently too young to sample them. When a server asks to see their IDs and shows them to a manager, they are politely declined.

870
pounds of limes used per week
55 gallons
margaritas served tonight

9:30 p.m.

A final flurry in the kitchen

Joe T.’s officially closes at 10, but there is still a buzz in the kitchen. While some cooks keep working on late food orders, other workers begin prepping for tomorrow. Dishwashers are hard at work, and otutside the kitchen door a stack of tablecloths about 6 feet high is awaiting a trip to the laundry room, just one of many loads on the night.

10:09 p.m.

Closed for business, but not really

Joe T.’s officially closes at 10, but there is still a buzz in the kitchen. While some cooks keep working on late food orders, other workers begin prepping for tomorrow. Dishwashers are hard at work, and otutside the kitchen door a stack of tablecloths about 6 feet high is awaiting a trip to the laundry room, just one of many loads on the night.

STAR-STRUCK, PART TWO

Jody Lancarte recalls the celebrities who have dined at Joe T.'s

10:25 p.m.

Breaking out the garden hoses

The main kitchen floor, where much food has dropped during the course of the evening, gets a rinse. Seriously, watch your step.

10:40 p.m.

The last diners leave

Liz Lancarte says there have been nights when they’ve lingered till 11:30. Cleanup continues in the kitchen past 11 p.m., and then a different cleanup crew will be there first thing in the morning.

11:25 p.m.

Time to call it a night

After a series of workers — more than we were aware were still inside the restaurant — make their exits, Liz locks up for the night, more than 18 hours after the first crew member arrived and just 5 1/2 hours before the Joe T.’s machine gets cranked up all over again.

1,200
customers on a typical Thursday